Chinese Hony Capital eats up Pizza Express

PIZZA Express became the latest UK brand to be snapped up by a Chinese buyer after it was announced that the restaurant chain would be sold to Chinese private equity firm Hony Capital for around £900m.

The sale of Pizza Express is part of a recent trend that has seen Chinese buyers take ownership of UK brands. In 2012, Chinese firm Bright Food bought Weetabix for around £1.2bn, while China’s Dalian Wanda bought luxury yacht maker Sunseeker International for around £300m in 2013.

The Pizza Express chain, which has over 400 restaurants in the UK, is being bought by Hony Capital from the London-based private equity firm Cinven, owner of the Gondola Group restaurant chain, which also runs Zizzi and Ask Italian.

Cinven has sought to sell off Gondola Group assets in recent years, including Byron Hamburgers which was sold for around £100m to Hutton Collins Partners in 2013.

Pizza Express has recently ramped up its international expansion, and now operates in 14 countries, with 22 restaurants in China so far, and it hopes the deal with Hony Capital will boost its expansion in Asia further.

Richard Hodgeson, chief executive of Pizza Express said: “Asia is a key part of our future growth strategy and Hony’s expertise in this region will be invaluable. We are looking forward to working with them on this as well as our ambitious UK growth plans.”

John Zhao, Hony Capital chief executive said: “With Pizza Express, we have the opportunity to leverage our local expertise to accelerate its growth in the Chinese market, as well as to continue to drive its business forward in the UK.”

■ Pizza Express was founded by Peter Boizot, who opened the first Pizza Express restaurant in Wardour Street in London in 1965, after enjoying pizza during his travels in Europe. He saw a glaring gap in the London market, which was bereft of pizzerias at the time.

■ Within a few years Pizza Express opened its second restaurant in Coptic Street in Bloomsbury in 1967. Boizot had already began working with designer and artist Enzo Apicella, who played a key role in creating the interiors and style of the Pizza Express restaurants from then on.

■ The young Pizza Express quickly developed a strong link with jazz music, with Boizot opening the Pizza Express Jazz Club in 1969 in Dean Street in Soho. The club has played host to an array of stars over the years including Norah Jones, Amy Winehouse and Jamie Callum. Pizza Express has since opened a further two jazz clubs, and continues to support jazz festivals now.

■ The company was first floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1993, before the franchised restaurants were bought back three years later in 1996. In 2003 it was bought by TDR Capital and Capricorn Ventures, who a year later merged it with ASK Central to form Gondola Holdings in 2004. Pizza Express was then floated on the London Stock Exchange again in 2005 as part of Gondola Holdings. In 2007 it was bought by private equity group Cinven.

■ In 2011 Pizza Express underwent a major brand revamp, making changes to its logo and menu, as well as the interiors of its restaurants, as it sought to fight competition from its rivals.

■ Pizza Express, which now employs over 9,000 workers, currently has 504 restaurants, including 436 in the UK, and 68 internationally. It has a particular presence in Asia and the Middle East, with restaurants in countries including China, Dubai, Hong Kong, India, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates. The acquisition of Pizza Express by Chinese private equity firm Hony Capital comes as Cinven has been looking for years to sell its Gondola Holding assets, and may well see Pizza Express continue its focus on international expansion in the years ahead.

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